By Jason A. Smith
A Stockbridge man avoided the death penalty Friday, after being convicted of murder in the death of his daughter.
Rodney Michael Reaves, 42, was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole in 14 years, for the murder of his 11-year-old daughter, Joella. He was found guilty Wednesday of felony murder, two counts of cruelty to children, and aggravated battery. His attorney said he plans to appeal the verdict next week.
Prior to both sides' closing arguments in the sentencing phase of the trial Friday, Reaves made a last-minute decision to testify on his own behalf for the first time. He said he was unaware of the abuse Joella endured, allegedly at the hands of his wife, Charlott Reaves, after the couple gained custody of the child in 2002.
Joella was "scared to tell me what was going on," Rodney Reaves said. "She wanted what I wanted - for us to be a family. She just wanted to belong."
Charlott Reaves also faces murder charges in the child's death, and will stand trial in April. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in her case as well.
Rodney Reaves spoke to the jury about the day he discovered Joella's body at his home in 2003, and the treatment he received from authorities investigating her death. He said it "didn't matter" what he told detectives when he was being questioned.
"They didn't care," Reaves said. "They had me sitting at a table giving a statement so I could be convicted of murder. That's why we're here now."
In a dramatic moment on the stand, Reaves directed his attention to Henry County District Attorney Tommy Floyd. He said Floyd refused to entertain the notion he did not cause Joella's death. "Congratulations," Reaves said, while clapping his hands at the prosecutor. "You got your conviction."
He then reiterated his claim of innocence. "I did not kill my child, and I did not beat my child," he said. "I know, Joella knows, and my God knows I did not kill her."
Floyd chose not to question Reaves, and instead began his closing statements in the sentencing phase. Floyd said in order for the jury to sentence Reaves to die, it had to find he was a "major participant" in Joella's death, and that Reaves acted with "reckless disregard" for her life.
Floyd emphasized his belief the actions of Charlott Reaves contributed heavily to Joella's death, but reminded the jury of the task before them in the case.
According to Floyd, Rodney Reaves "hog-tied" Joella in the garage of their home, and was present when Charlott Reaves beat the child. Floyd disputed earlier claims by the defendant, who said he was asleep at the time his wife allegedly inflicted Joella's injuries.
"What do you think Charlott's going to say at her trial?" said Floyd. "'I didn't do it, Rodney did it.' Where does that leave poor Joella? Right in the middle."
Defense Attorney Ricky Morris began closing arguments on behalf of Reaves. He told the jury there was a reason Floyd's remarks did not include a plea for the death penalty in the case.
"I don't think that's what he wants you to do," said Morris. "He knows who the major participant in this crime was. None of you found Rodney Reaves guilty of malice murder, which means you did not find that he intentionally did any act to cause the death of Joella Reaves. What I'm asking you to do is stand by your verdict."
Like Floyd, Morris had harsh words for Charlott Reaves. "But I'm also going to ask you for leniency and mercy for Rodney, because I don't think Rodney did it," he said.
Public Defender Bowman also addressed the jury, asserting that Rodney Reaves was not at home when the majority of Joella's injuries were inflicted. Bowman said his client is "not a monster," and sentencing him to death would not bring Joella back.
Defense attorneys played a tape of the 911 call Rodney Reaves made on the day he found Joella dead. After the jury listened to Reaves' wailing and pleading for several minutes for emergency workers to come to the scene, Bowman left the panel with a thought to ponder. "Is that the voice of a major player?" he said.
The jury deliberated for nearly two hours before sentencing Reaves, who did not visibly react to the decision.
Floyd spoke briefly about the verdict and the sentence after court was adjourned. He commended the jury for its work in the case, and the prison term they imposed on Reaves.
"We filed a notice that gave the jury all the possibilities, and that's the possibility they chose," Floyd said. "I frankly don't think there's any practical difference in this case, because of the defendant's age and the nature of the case, between life or life without parole."
Floyd said the outcome of Rodney Reaves' case has "no effect" on the prosecution of Charlott Reaves, but did not comment further on the charges against her.
Bowman said he was disappointed with the guilty verdict, in part, because Rodney Reaves' statements were "consistent" from the beginning of the investigation. He praised his client for the "tremendous amount of courage" he displayed by taking the stand.
According to Bowman, the trial could have ended more favorably for his client if not for key witnesses who were not allowed to testify.
"I felt like there were five witnesses that I [brought] to the court, who showed that Charlott did a great deal of this," said Bowman. "By keeping that evidence out, I was not able to get it to the jury except in the sentencing phase."
Bowman said he is hopeful appeal proceedings will result in those witnesses' statements being heard by a jury in the future, and will help to overturn the verdict.